Off the Map in the Bahamas

I prefer the places at the edge of the map, the small towns and sparse coastlines where you're surprised to find pieces of everyday life. A grocery store becomes a novelty; every home is a window into a recognizable but entirely foreign version of existence. And the secret is, you don’t need a transcontinental flight or a week-long overland trip to find yourself out on the fringes. Take, for example, the islands of the Bahamas. Sitting atop the Caribbean like a bland haircut, the eyes of the traveler often wander elsewhere. And for those of us who do pay attention to this chain of islands, it's often for rather inauspicious reasons: Spring Break, resorts, and cruise ships. But in the overlooked corners of the map there are always forgotten towns, hard-to-reach spots, and untold stories. How do you find them? Start by taking a closer look at the map, and you’ll find places like Hope Town.

Start by getting yourself to Florida. Checked bags? That’s one demerit point. If you can’t wear it on your back, your bag is going to be cumbersome. If it doesn't slow you down when you have to change terminals in Florida, it will be an inconvenience when you need to stow it on the tiny plane that will take you to the Bahamas. And if for some reason that all goes smoothly, heave your clunky bag into the rundown cab at the airport and lug it onto the dock to wait for your ferry to Hope Town. And if you have navigated the path of least resistance and find yourself happily on the ferry with a bag full of everything you might need, get ready to carry it from the ferry dock to your accommodations. That walk can be a mile or two unless you hitch a ride along the way.

Hope Town is one of the bigger settlements in the Abacos, the chain of islands that make up the northernmost portion of the Bahamas. Still, it’s small. As you walk off the ferry dock in town, you’ll notice the roads are driven mostly by golf carts. And keep an eye out, because while they don’t go fast they do travel on the left side of the road. Occasionally the locals will drive by in a Nissan that looks entirely out of place on potholed roads lined with palm trees, but more frequently they’ll whiz by you in a beat up pickup, headed to work. Make sure to wave hello to everyone you pass. 

The grocery stores are small, in order to keep them cool in the tropical sun. Scattered around the island, each serves a different section of the population. Their plywood shelves hold the basics, like beans and rice and root vegetables, milk and eggs and bread, as well as a few luxuries. Time your visits just after the grocery boat arrives each week, and you could be lucky enough to find cauliflower, almond milk, and veggie burgers. Regardless of what you buy, expect to pay more than you’re expecting. The prices are influenced by weight since it all comes to the island on a weekly grocery boat. So, if you’re looking to keep to your budget in Hope Town, skip the milk and cereal for breakfast and opt for oatmeal. 

The topic of cash is always on the minds of people venturing out beyond the branches of recognizable banks. Will I have enough cash? Where can I use an ATM? Do they take American Express? Here, you’re in luck because Hope Town does have an ATM. You can use it, along with everyone else, from 10 o’clock in the morning until 2 o’clock in the afternoon, every Tuesday. That’s it. So if you want to pay in cash, bring it with you. American dollars are as welcome as their Bahamian counterparts, and there is no exchange rate to worry about. But spend all your Bahamian cash before you leave because it’s not exchangeable back in the States. If all that sounds confusing, just bring your credit card. The only place that doesn’t accept cards is Munchies, a little ice cream shop in town, so bring enough cash for a coconut cone and a Visa (no American Express) and you’ll be fine.

It’s these types of amenities that make Hope Town an easy place for recurring visitors to watch grow up. While younger travelers extol the lack of push notifications and marvel at weekly mail deliveries, older visitors share stories of decades past when they made restaurant reservations, and placed their orders, by VFH radio. And it all had to be done before noon so that the meat could be thawed in time. Each visit presents a new development: roads get repaved, an ice cream shop gets erected, a new grocery store opens up. And in the background, a new home is always being built for someone, as always, eager to hide away in this island paradise.

And it does have elements of paradise. Palm trees line white sand beaches and the island enjoys an almost perpetual summer. The submarine life is tremendous, as Hope Town sits mere miles from the continental shelf and along a major chain of coral reefs, with manta rays and amber jacks bigger than the people looking at them. The microclimate atop the reef is pulsating with clown fish and blue tangs that dart behind the fan coral as you float by, only to continue their collective fluttering once the coast is clear. But there is danger in the water as well, and anyone too focused on the beauty may find themselves in an unsavory situation. The coral is alive, and brushing up against it will cut you badly. Moray eels lurk in the reef, while barracuda are common watchdogs that come to inspect any visitors. Sharks are also prevalent here, so much so that the locals have placed shark traps outside the harbor to keep them at bay. Out on the reef, though, you’re in open ocean and while trouble is rare, the potential for it is constant.

Describing any place simply as a paradise is short-changing it, and causes you to overlook that place’s particular opportunities for calamity, which always seem to go hand in hand with paradise. Paradise is a quality of place, rather than a place itself. Out on the reef, you’re a few hundred yards from the nearest island, which is a few miles from the nearest doctor, which is a plane ride from the nearest hospital back in Florida. While this can be worrying, it's also incredibly invigorating. Decisions as simple as whether or not to jump in the water have a new gravitas. You can't look up the frequency of shark sightings on the reef. There is no life guard. You can't call 911. I have never come face to face with a shark while swimming in the Bahamas, but every time I jump in the water I have to be ready for it. I don't go looking for calamity, but I love avoiding it.

The edges of the map feel sparse. Beyond the lack of territory or resources, of amenities or people, the most poignant absence is the lack of safeguards. That's what keeps drawing me out to the periphery. On the fringes, everything feels more important because there's less of everything, and everything that’s left feels utterly immediate. It's just you, the sun on your neck, the few clothes in your bag, the cash in your pocket, the food on your plate, and maybe the shark around the bend in the reef.

 

A version of this piece was published on The Momentist, which you can read here.

Found Photos

I look at a lot of images online every month for work, and I come across some stunners. Here are a few of my favorites from this winter.

Found Photos

I look at a lot of images online every month for work, and I come across some stunners. Here are a few of my favorites from October.

Iceland: Intermission

It’s the eve of Independence Day in Iceland, and I’m in a small hotel in the northern city of Akureyri. Like many others taking advantage of the midnight sun, I’m driving around Iceland’s Ring Road, camping when I need to and stopping in the bigger towns when I encounter them. About halfway through my trip, this stop in Akureyri is a welcome break from the endless yellow road markers of Iceland, and the revelry comes through the open windows from the party-makers outside. I know nothing of the Independence Day celebrations of Iceland other than what I have observed so far, which is fancily dressed people of all ages, drinking in the streets, with all the women wearing boat captain hats. Coupled with the driving so far, the festivities encourage a pleasant, faraway feeling: things are foreign enough that just watching them is interesting, but I’m too tired to think much beyond simply enjoying what I see. This is my first night in a bed since I left Boston.

Camping in Iceland has been simple. Each town, big or small, has a camp site that is always well-marked, well equipped, and located near town. Geographically, they are not as inspiring as they could be, but there are many campsites that lay further from town, deeper into the river valleys or a bit further into the highlands, sure to satiate the traveller with enough time to find them. But with the amount of driving and exploring one does each day, the need to also sleep somewhere magnificent becomes secondary to the need to simply sleep. So far, the campsite in Vik was lively, with a large number of French travelers, and backed by impressive bird cliffs, while the location in Höfn was far drabber. Each had clean bathrooms, hot water, and showers available for a small fee. 

After 3 full days of driving, rounding the bend into Eyjafjordur and seeing Akureyri spread out on the hillside, nestled in at the back of the fjord a mere 60 miles below the Arctic Circle, felt as unreal a thing to stumble upon as any of the landscapes I’d driven through up until this point. My trip started on the frequently photographed south coast. A dense group of sites begin at Seljelandsfoss and continue right through the town of Vik, and while many of them have become standard blog fodder for travel writers, there’s still wonders to be found on this stretch of road. Keep an eye out for the caves in the cliffs next to Seljelandsfoss, big enough to fit a group of people. The walk up the coast near Dyrhólaey, the giant coastal stone arch, provides a sweeping vantage point above the black sand beaches to one side, with the rock formations and sandbars of Vik spreading out the other way. 

After Vik, the day travelers turn back to Reykjavik and those that continue northward are all making their way around the island. The Ring Road never has much of a shoulder, so if you see a chance to turn off, take it. Some of the best parts of my trip happened at the end of these little side roads. 

The landscape changes rapidly between Vik and Höfn, the next stopping point on my route. The craggy mountains are, if possible, more impressive here, and spring up out of nowhere as you pass through lava fields and glacial run offs. The Vatnajokull glacier, which Route 1 brings you around the South and East of, also pokes its tendrils out further here and a mass of ice sits at the back end of every valley. Finally, in the approach to Höfn you come across a dusty, gravel stretch that lasts for miles and houses Jökulsárlón, the glacial lagoon. Only a few hours removed from the lush waterfalls of the South, this feels like an altogether different planet. 

Gravel begins to take over here, as the road winds its way in and out of the East Fjords as you head north from Höfn. While it doesn’t look far on the map, making your way through here takes time as you trace the intricate coastline. There is no great way to get yourself out of the East Fjords, as the paved road is a bit incomplete. I opted for the Oxi Pass, heading out the back of Berufjodur on Road 939 into the mountains. The dirt roads in Iceland are well marked and I passed plenty of other cars, vans, and 4x4s on the way, but I’d be lying if I said it was a relaxing drive.

The Oxi Pass takes you to the top of the fjord and down the backside, the highest point of the drive yet. After the barren coastline of the East Fjords, the descent into the town of Egilsstadir is surprising: evergreen trees line the roads and farms are plentiful. It was the densest area of plant life I’d seen, with small patches of weather gathering on this side of the mountains. But shortly thereafter the scene changes again as you pass through Egilsstadir, exit the fjords, and enter a barren landscape of black mountains made of volcanic sand. Memories of the black sand beach come to you, but this is a giant’s beach, and they’ve been building sandcastles. 

The waterfall Dettifoss, Europe’s most powerful, hides away in this region. Unlike the falls on the South coast that tumble down from the mountains before running out to sea, Dettifoss is always beneath you. Its source is a river that runs through a fissure-like crack in the landscape, and the waterfall drops even further into the crevasse. The spray from the water hangs in the air and obscures the overall scale of both the drop and the run off, so that the viewer merely stares at the falls themselves, wondering where all the water came from and assuming it just returns to the middle of the earth afterwards. 

And so pulling into Akureyri, a city of 18,000, was quite a change. The settlement itself is as old as any in Iceland, but its growth and development mostly occurred during the last 100 years. After the prehistoric qualities of the landscape, it’s jarring to pull into a town like this, with its trendy hostels and glitzy antique cars. The whole of my experience in Iceland, so far, has been like that: reconciling the epic landscapes with a much newer cultural atmosphere. While Iceland has been settled since the 9th century, there is not much of its old world still obvious to the regular traveler. One relic that is obvious is the stone cairns that occasionally line the roads. Remnants of ancient trail markings, it was easy to imagine Icelanders of centuries past making there way into Akureyri, just as I was, on horseback fighting against the weather.

Someone tells me in passing that the Independence Day celebrations commemorate the 1944 split with Denmark. The boat captains hats have not been explained, but it is another jarring comparison for me to make as I try to further comprehend this country. To the foreigner, the contrast between the vacuous landscape at Dettifoss and the bustle of Akureyri is just as hard to reconcile as the prehistoric landscapes and the people who assembled those cairns on the roadside with the fact that Iceland is celebrating an independence a mere 72 years old. 

#TalesOnRails with Rail Europe

What first drew me to Europe was family. My grandfather, as a young boy, emigrated between the wars. His family came from a little hamlet in northern France and, through a series of moves, finally disembarked from Portugal while fleeing Spain during that country’s civil war. Their escape involved a van pockmarked with bullet holes, the Cartier jewels, and a gardener that turned out to be the local resistance leader. As a child, these stories, and the places they occurred, fascinated me. 

Genealogy of my maternal grandfather, traced back to 16th century France. 

Genealogy of my maternal grandfather, traced back to 16th century France. 

Photos of my grandfather's departure from Europe. He's the dapper little boy with the comb-over in the middle row of photos.

Photos of my grandfather's departure from Europe. He's the dapper little boy with the comb-over in the middle row of photos.

While in college I studied abroad at the Sorbonne in Paris and connected with distant relatives whose branches of the family tree had stayed planted in France. As many travelers do, I explored Europe through a historical lens, imagining myself walking in the footsteps of kings or luminaries of centuries past. The Lost Generation, those writers and artists living in Paris in the 1920s, became my chosen porthole into European culture. I wandered rue Moufftard ignoring the bars and looking for Hemingway on the way from his first apartment to his writing room. I drank dry sherry, just like Joyce, at Les Deux Magots. I like to think that my precocity was internalized enough that it wasn’t actually palpable to the real people around me, but who can know for sure. By the time I returned to college in New Hampshire, my interest hadn’t been satiated. I ended up writing, and receiving some academic distinction for, my senior thesis about the writers I met on these ghostly streets of Paris’s past during my own visit to Babylon. 

Based on these stories I love and my own imagination, I'm creating a collection of short stories that takes on all the different expatriate personas that populate daydreams and the flawed memory of youthful travel and lets them run wild. The work examines how the past intermingles with the present, and how the stories of yesteryear can enhance, rather than spoil, today’s adventures. Traveling to Switzerland as a part of #TalesOnRail would be an incredible opportunity to continue this path of discovery. In the same way that Paris held a draw years ago, I have the same craving for Switzerland: branches of the family tree based in Geneva and Basel; fictional plot lines to follow from Hemingway’s Homage to Switzerland and A Farewell to Arms; and real life dramas to imagine based on the Swiss sanatarium visits of the Fitzgeralds and their wealthy expatriate friends (and inspiration for Tender is the Night) Gerald and Sara Murphy.

By giving myself the opportunity to live out those stories, by traveling to these places and visiting hotels and bars and restaurants and bookshops that they went to, it ignites my imagination and pushes me to create new work. The time on the train will provide that unique sense of being unreachable, within the world and yet removed as you speed through it, that trains provide and that is so conducive to creative productivity. The frequent stops will also make for irresistible fodder for shorter “word-pictures” on my Instagram account, @jack__callahan. If given the chance to travel with Rail Europe on this #TalesOnRails adventure, it will not only help me to continue writing the stories I want to, but it will allow me to document the experience on social media in a way that will allow other people to see what its like to take a train trip like this, so informed by the past, in the modern day.  

Iceland: Part I

The periphery of Reykjavik feels at once foreign and familiar. Gas stations and grocery stores stand out to the visitor due to their shape rather than their signage. Apartment buildings and condos line the water’s edge but have that distinctly different personality of cold-weather architecture. Traffic signs have unfamiliar symbols. They are, however, still gas stations and grocery stores, apartment buildings and condos, and simple traffic signs. But when you turn off Route 49, the main artery out of the city, and onto Route 1, even that familiarity falls away. 

    Route 1, known as the Ring Road, circumnavigates the island. Drive far enough and you’ll end up back where you started. The landscape is practically lunar as you begin heading southeast away from the capital. Dry moss and the like grows along the hardened lava flow that stretches out on each side of the road further than the eye can see. Bald mountains stained with rusting iron or dotted with patches of snow spring up as the road winds its way up and up, raised slightly over the landscape on a kind of berm. The wind whips across the road and wobbles the smaller cars that drive it. 

    Such is the nature of the island’s landscape that, constantly looking out the windshield to see what new view awaits, the environs change before you’re ready to leave them behind. With the lava fields and snow-topped mountains behind you, a massive valley lays ahead, with the road winding down towards it. The town of Hverager∂I is nestled on the flatness below, and is the beginning of a string of settlements of various sizes and stages of upkeep strung together by horse farms, small ranches, and the occasional gas station. It’s a long stretch of road with the disadvantage of existing between the lava fields and the desolate expanse that everyone is heading for. Bear right when you get to the town of Hvolsvöllur, and make sure your camera is at the ready. 

Iceland-waterfall-seljelandsfoss

The Iceland that most people photograph begins in what is basically a run-off area of the glaciers of the Thórsmörk mountain ridge. Thundering out across the river of glacial melt is Seljalandsfoss, the first in a string of waterfalls that tumble off the edge of land at the base of the mountains before trickling much less impressively into the ocean a few miles away. 

    Route 1 runs just along the edge of this rop off, and the pure white glacier can be seen from the road and is a bit disorienting when one realizes it isn’t a cloud, sitting so high above the mountains. Waterfalls of varying sizes coat the cliffs, deep valleys cut into it, and the occasional homestead watches over the fields that stretch out between the road and the undulating ridge line. 

Writehere...

Two of the biggest waterfalls on this stretch of road are Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss. Each has a convenient pull off and a few amenities. Seljalandsfoss has port-a-potties, food trucks, and a little shed where a local woman sells handmade sweaters. Skogafoss has a hostel, a restaurant, and bathroom facilities that resemble a campground’s. Brightly colored tour buses line the parking areas of each one. 

After driving through hours of abandoned countryside and quiet homes, the crowds (if you can call them that) are a bit jarring. Each waterfall has an unexpected stairway that clings to the steep hillside which gives you a better vantage point of the drop and is lined with photographers. When I stopped at Skogafoss, the second stop on my trip, an odd sensation occurred to me. I had spent the entire drive from Reykjavik in total awe of the countryside I was driving through, passing only the occasional rental car that I imagined was filled with intrepid explorers like myself. I felt further from home than I ever had before, and the view around each corner was as unexpected as the last. Before you see them, the waterfalls are no more than a dot on an empty map; nestled in crooks in the cliffs, as massive as they are you don’t really see them until you’ve arrived. At practically the same instant, if not before, you see the parking lots filled with tour buses. I even saw some of the same people I’d walked beside at Seljalandsfoss here at Skogafoss. My excitement wasn’t lessened, but my sense of adventure morphed slightly into an internal sense of discovery rather the trailblazing wonder it had been. 

Skogafoss on the southern coast of Iceland.

Skogafoss on the southern coast of Iceland.

The tour buses go to each of these spots because the itinerary is worth it. I don’t suggest skipping it because of crowds; this is still Iceland and there was never more than 50 people wandering around. But it is a sudden feeling of finding yourself back on the map when you get to each of these places. On the journey out of the city, Route 1 felt like a tight rope: stray too far off of it and you risk falling into wilderness oblivion. By the time I pulled out of the Skogafoss parking lot, that feeling was gone. But there are ways to regain some of that trailblazing wonder. 

Tucked between Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss, in an unmarked valley, is the Seljavallalaug pool. Built in 1923 as a place to teach the local kids how to swim, the pool is kept up by the Icelanders that live in the area. They clean it and its rudimentary bathhouse once a year. The pool itself is about 50 feet long, hot in the corner where the geothermal water runs into it and lukewarm throughout. It was flurrying and 30 degrees when I went for my swim, and although I wasn’t cold I did keep my hat on. 

iceland-stairs
Seljavallalaug pool.

Seljavallalaug pool.

It’s difficult to locate the access road that leads into the valley, but once you’re there the half-mile trek into the narrow river valley is simple. Follow the stream that trickles through the valley until it becomes more of a river, crossing it once, and keep walking until you round a corner. The pool will be on you left, clinging to the foot of the hillside that rises, in varying degrees of magnitude, to the Eyjafjallajokull volcano above you. Tour buses don’t visit this spot, but I did meet a few people along the path to the pool: a French family visiting from Marseille, a group of Canadians or Americans, and even a few Icelanders. 

Until this point, I hadn’t noticed the lack of local people. I’d been a bit distracted. But walking up to a pool in the middle of nowhere warrants friendly introductions with the few other people that are there, and so I got to talking. It was when I asked my second Icelander where they were visiting from, only to learn that they had come here many times before, that I realized I had seen so few locals outside of Reykjavik that I now assumed everyone I came across was a visitor, like myself. I hadn’t expected to see Icelandic school children on tours of the waterfalls, or college students lazing about Seljavallalaug between classes. But I had expected to see people around the houses I drove by, or at the gas stations I stopped at, or in their cars passing me on the road. But I hadn’t. And so I found myself back-peddling as a got into the pool, telling them how much I enjoyed their ountry, and offering a smile and a shrug towards the water as an exit strategy. 

Iceland-ring-road

In Reykjavik, I had felt very much a visitor. I was lost frequently, deciphering maps and signage in a language I knew not, and I took too many photos, pausing on sidewalks at nondescript locations when something caught my eye. I had been welcomed in a friendly way and then left to my own devices. Upon leaving, I felt I had left any semblance of the city behind. But here I was, swimming in a hundred-year old hot spring-fed pool attached to the base of a volcano, as far from the confines of my New England life as I’d ever been, and so lost in my own narrative of adventure and discovery that it had been unthinkable that I was encountering people going about their daily lives. I swam in the pool for a while, shared a glass of cheap red wine with the Canadians, and dressed. By the time I left the sun was beginning to reach for the horizon and dusk was nestling into the little valley. I walked back to the parking lot with a few of the other swimmers, our damp towels tucked around our shoulders, wet hair dripping a bit, just as I had left countless swim lessons at home. 

This is not the story of Iceland that is projected in travel media today. In travel media, we see photo after photo of waterfalls and glacial rivers, read articles on all the remote fishing villages and stark chapels we need to visit. In the photos, there is always an intrepid traveler or two, a well-equipped Land Rover with skis or surfboards strapped to the roof, and an empty, re-historic coastline. And while it’s mostly a desolate, beautiful place, it’s not empty. People spend their days here, their lives here, even though you may not see them walking dogs or taking the trash out as you drive by on the Ring Road. The point here is not to detract from the exploration Iceland provides its visitors, but to remember the people who have kept the island the adventure it is for the rest of us.

Off the Map on the Coast of Maine

porthole-eggemogin

On the first weekend of August, in a little bay rimmed by dense pines midway up the coast of Maine, you’ll find a thriving fleet of antique wooden yachts nestled temporarily in the fog. The boats are finishing up a three-day event, navigating the cold, clear, lobster-riddled waters surrounding Deer Isle. They race up the coast by day and spend each night in a new harbor, where their crews fall asleep in wool socks and down sleeping bags. Even in the summer months, the water is cold and when the sun sets, the temperatures plummet.

The boats arrive in this quiet, rural, pine-rimmed bay in anticipation of the Eggemoggin Reach Regatta, the main event that the other two feeder races build to. On each leg, more boats join the tour and more sailors climb aboard.

The coast of Maine is a jagged one, with granite peninsulas jutting out from the mainland and fencing in islands big and small. The effect this has, when navigating through the water, is one of utter disorientation. Without careful observation of the charts, it’s easy to lose track of what is an island and what is the mainland, which projects out to sea before receding back beyond the horizon. Compounding that is the fog; it is dense and can move quickly. It’s not uncommon to hear boats before you can see them, blowing their fog horn out somewhere in the mist. And it’s not hard to forget where you are entirely; to lose sight of yourself on the map.

Foggy-Dock-Eggemoggin

 

I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to the race for three years now, sailing on a Little Harbor 36 built in 1960. In its previous lives, the boat has won internationally-recognized races and sailed the Atlantic. Now, it’s a pristine restoration project, all teak and new canvas, still performing well and always a threat to win the Eggemoggin Reach Regatta. I, in a previous life, learned to sail in a tiny wooden dinghy called a ‘Sea Shell,’ in a gentle lagoon in Connecticut within view of my grandparents’ deck. Since then, I have sailed sporadically but never on anything large or complicated. Now, I find myself seated on the stern as we round a mark surrounded by boats twice our size.

But like sea legs, sailing is something that comes back to you before you know it. It comes back to you in the mechanical pleasure of everyone working together on a clean tack, or an efficient sail change. While it may take an expert to explain the technical side of sailing, excitement is something that can be easily felt by even the most novice sailor. It’s thrilling to hear thick canvas whipping in the wind and voices shouting instructions from across the water; to see old boats being sailed like sports cars. It’s even more thrilling to be on them.

As technically difficult as a sailboat race can be, there is a lot of time spent waiting; waiting for the next tack, or the next mark, or the next puff of wind. During this time, often riding high on the rail of the boat as it’s heeled up, I couldn’t help but imagine where else the vessel beneath me had been. At once a mode of transportation, a place to stay when you arrive, and a destination in and of itself, a boat encapsulates travel like few other things. The boat I was on had seen far more of the world than I had, and it was this, more than the wind pushing us along, or the unknown shoreline ahead of us, that made me feel as if I was simply along for the ride.

 

Originally published on PassionPassport.com.